For teens, detention is the path to a life of crime

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Early intervention, education and housing can all help keep teenagers out of serious trouble. And that’s important, because contact with the youth justice system can have very poor outcomes. Angus Delaney and Phillip Pitsillou report.

Putting young people in custody can do more harm than good, experts say.

Victoria Police senior forensic psychologist Dr Karla Lopez said the current youth justice system “does not function well”.

Detaining young people can increase future offending, she said.

“Alternatives should always be tried before considering custody.” Those alternatives include treatment, educational programs and adequate housing.

Dr Lopez said that these programs need to be appropriately funded and available to young offenders for as long as they were needed, which “seldom happens”.

“Having said that, by the time a young person enters custody, it is usually a sign of many failed interventions in the community.

“It usually signals disengagement from education, conflict at home and possibly homelessness, as well as their own victimisation.”

Criminal lawyer Gabriella Margaritis said strained early family life and early contact with the law stands out in countless cases across the justice system, and that’s why Australia must implement a preventative rather than a determinative approach to youth crime.

Criminal lawyer Gabriella Margaritis. 
Photo supplied. 

“Predominantly where I work is concerned with adult offenders with extremely serious charges. What has been apparent is a long history of offending,” she said.

“Pages of prior convictions. A majority starting from hearings in the children’s court.”

A 2018 Crime Statistics Agency study showed young people under the age of 25 made up 54.2 per cent of chronic offenders (more than 10 incidents each).

Crime Statistics Agency chief statistician Catherine Andersson said a small number of chronic offenders were responsible for a large proportion of crime.

“While there were fewer offenders aged under 25, a greater proportion were chronic offenders compared to those aged 25 years and over,” Ms Andersson said.

For ages 16-20, the rate for alleged incidents is 10,000-plus per 100,000 people, compared to about 4500 for people aged over 25, figures show.

Dr Lopez said the profile of young offenders has increased, with the media having an adverse impact on offending at times, when young offenders may find it exciting to feature on TV or in the news.

Dr Lopez said prison was not always a restraint. “For many people, it is not a huge deterrent when they find their friends inside as well.” 

“There are a range of programs available for youths in detainment, mostly offending specific,” Dr Lopez said.

However, the Sentencing Advisory Council reported that although fewer than 1 per cent of young people are sentenced, there is a 61 per cent recidivism rate over six years.

The Law Council of Australia’s submission to a current national review into the age of criminal responsibility (10 years old in Australia, against the more usual international age of 14), argues for children to be kept away from the criminal justice system as much as possible.

“Studies also show that the younger a child is when they have their first contact with the criminal justice system, the higher the chance of future offending,” the report said.

The recidivism rate for 10-12-year-olds is about 86 per cent. For 13-14 year-olds, it is 84 per cent. For 17-year-olds, it is 51 per cent.

About  600  children,  aged  between  10  and  13,  are  imprisoned  annually  in  Australia,  and  thousands  more  are hauled through the criminal justice system every year, according to The Human Rights Law Centre.

Jesuit Social services spokesman Andrew Yule young people in detention are often from highly disadvantaged backgrounds, and lack positive support from their families, schools, or friendship groups.

“All of them (the 600 imprisoned youth) could have been responded to more effectively by understanding the drivers of their behaviour and working with them in an age-appropriate and culturally appropriate way, to address their challenges,” he said.

Mr Yule said that to connect troubled children back to positive pathways and repairing relationships in their lives, mentoring and education is the most progressive way.

“Kids should be in school, not prison. It is better to work with (younger) children who are at risk … than doing nothing until a child is older and drops out completely.

“[That is] the first step on a path to anti-social behaviour and involvement with the youth justice system.”

Swinburne Professor of social work Jenny Martin said repeat offending depends on “what supports are available when youth leave a detention centre.”

 “People can be left behind in the justice system,” she said.